Rita Moreno has many faces. In Oz, she’s the face of pragmatic authority, one of the few female figures in the male prison drama. In West Side Story, she is the passionate Anita, surviving race conflict in uptown New York with song, dance, and eventually a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
For this little pink duck Moreno will always be Googie Gomez, the cabaret performer-in-residence at the fictional gay sauna brought to life in Terrence McNally’s The Ritz. Hysterical, egotistical and totally bonkers, Moreno’s Googie frequently has to assert she is not a drag queen.
And pumping up the volume on her Puerto Rican ancestry, Moreno belts out every-theengsa cohmeeng up-a rose-ay for-a me and-a for-a tchoo! -“ otherwise known as Everything’s Coming Up Roses.
Moreno laughs gleefully at the reminder of Gomez, a role she also played on stage and one that won her a Tony Award.
She’s a delicious character, a character of my invention, that Terrence saw me do at a party, and doing that song, Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Moreno says.
McNally is in her thoughts this very day, on the phone from her home in Berkeley. Moreno is in the middle of rehearsals for Masterclass, McNally’s play about the life of Maria Callas, the role of a lifetime.
Such roles were once the stuff of dreams for the performer, who moved to New York from Puerto Rico with her family when she was just five years old. Has the situation improved for Hispanic actors?
They’ve gotten better but you have to understand that you’ve got to be extremely shapely and bosomy and all those kinds of things, Moreno says. You have to keep things in their proper perspective and that’s their proper perspective. It’s terrific for Jennifer Lopez -¦ but it’s still about being shapely and that kind of stuff.
Moreno’s no Plain Jane though. Did her looks help her career initially?
It did nothing for me, particularly then, she says. Everything was such a clich?nd stereotypical. I was playing little Indian maidens in movies and I was playing little fiery spitfires in very poor Westerns -¦ it didn’t help me one damned bit!
Moreno kept at it, eventually winning the big four: an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy. Now 73 years old, Moreno is still very busy, appearing in the last 10 years in both Oz and in cabaret with Carol Channing. (She was very odd was all Moreno would disclose.)
Given Moreno’s experiences in the all-male gay sauna of The Ritz, hitting the fictional confines of the Oswald Penitentiary for Oz should have been a snap. Moreno plays Sister Pete, the psychiatrist in charge of arranging conjugal visits for prisons, that is, private sessions for sexual contact between convicts and their wives.
The first couple of episodes of the HBO cable drama were reviewed in the Star’s TV column last week and the news wasn’t good. For pure trash value it rated highly, although over six seasons the show apparently improved. To its credit, the graphic subjects covered even in the first season are bold and sexy. Oz is the precursor to The Sopranos, with both dramas blissfully pushing envelopes.
Moreno says the content is surprisingly challenging.
I think HBO was inordinately brave in not only buying the idea of Oz, but never, ever, ever showing up on the set to okay anything or to censor anything -¦ she says. Whatever you may think about the violence -“ and God knows there’s plenty of it -“ and eventually the graphic sexuality, despite all of that -“ and it’s a big despite -“ the writing for this series is brilliant.
It’s a wonderful part and I’m thrilled to do it.
As Sister Pete, Moreno is straight-shooting and also sublimely cast -“ a kind of show queen mirage for gay inmates, ?a Kiss Of The Spiderwoman. And Sister Pete seems as resilient as Moreno herself.
I persevered. Because I always assumed that one day, one day something would happen, something would come along. Of course you have to be made of stuff like that to hang around.
Info Oz screens on SBS TV from Monday 3 May at 10pm. West Side Story was recently released on DVD through MGM Home Entertainment.